WEEK IN REVIEW
Criminal Justice Committee Hears Testimony of Slain Officer's Family
AUSTIN - Emotional and sometimes confrontational testimony from the family of Irving police officer Aubrey Hawkins topped a busy day in the Senate on Wednesday, February 7.
The members of the Hawkins family appeared before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee as part of the committee's ongoing overview of the Texas criminal justice system. Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff also met with the family Wednesday morning.
Lori Hawkins, the wife of the police officer allegedly killed on December 24 by one of the seven inmates who escaped from the Connally Unit in Kenedy on December 13, read from a prepared statement in which she said she blamed the state for the events leading up to the shooting death of her husband.
Jayne Hawkins, the mother of the Irving police officer, also called for changes in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) in her testimony, which was highly critical of the agency and, in particular, its leadership.
Jayne Hawkins' testimony was often caustic and pointed, at times accusing the members of the Criminal Justice Committee of complacency. Victoria Sen. Ken Armbrister, the chair of the committee, assured her that the committee shared her goal of ensuring that any mistakes that led to the escape are corrected.
Criminal Justice Committee Approves Hate Crimes Bill
The Criminal Justice Committee voted Wednesday to favorably report to the full Senate Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis' Senate Bill (SB) 87, dealing with the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes.
Senators John Whitmire (Houston), Mike Moncrief (Fort Worth), Steve Ogden (Bryan), Royce West (Dallas) and Armbrister voted to report the legislation favorably, with Amarillo Sen. Teel Bivins voting against it and Palestine Sen. Todd Staples present but not voting.
A similar piece of legislation was one of the most contentious issues in the 1999 session. It was never reported out of committee. A favorable committee report clears the way for the full Senate to consider the measure.
Senate Passes First Bills of the 77th Regular Session
On Wednesday, the Senate had its busiest day yet of the 2001 session, with final passage of five bills, SB 83, dealing with the regulation of facilities for the mentally handicapped; SB 144, dealing with chiropractic licensing qualifications; SB 145, dealing with chiropractic facility licenses; SB 170, relating to the Open Meetings Law's application to a quorum of directors of a state agency appearing before a legislative meeting; and Committee Substitute Senate Bill (CSSB) 139 relating to prosecution and punishment of harassment. The bills will now go to the House of Representatives for consideration.
Committees Examine Electric Utilities Restructuring Issues
The Senate Business and Commerce Committee and the House State Affairs Committee held a joint hearing on Monday, February 5, to examine electric utility restructuring issues.
The chair of the Business and Commerce Committee, Waco Sen. David Sibley, opened the hearing by addressing the highly publicized power shortage California has experienced since deregulation.
"The restructuring of the electric utility industry has been given a bad name by the troubles in California," Sibley said.
Sibley is the author of SB 7, legislation passed by the Texas Legislature in 1999 that began the state's electric industry restructuring process. He said SB 7 will ensure that Texas will not experience the same difficulties as California.
The California Legislature capped electricity prices at 1997 levels, Sibley said, leaving utilities with no way to pass on rising wholesale power costs. Aggravating the situation, no new major generating plants were built in California in the 1990s and utilities were prohibited from buying wholesale power in advance, forcing them to buy expensive power on short notice and sell it at a loss because of the price caps.
"The Golden State designed a system that is neither fish nor fowl," Sibley said. "It is half free market and half regulated."
Dallas Rep. Steve Wolens, who chairs the House State Affairs Committee that studied SB 7 before passing it out to the full House, also said Texas is taking a different path to electric deregulation than California did.
"There is nothing that they did that we copied," Wolens said. "If they did it one way, we did the opposite."
But Wolens also said the situation in California bears watching and that the committees would continue to meet and keep an eye on California.
Senate Action Would Extend Statute of Limitations For Some Injury Cases
The Senate voted on Thursday, February 8, to extend the statute of limitations in cases involving injury to a child, an elderly person or a disabled person.
Currently, Texas law limits the time in which these felony cases can be prosecuted to three years. La Porte Sen. Mike Jackson's Senate Bill (SB) 328 would extend the time to ten years. SB 328 will go to the House of Representatives for consideration.
Sibley Files Bill Seeking End to Phone Fee Taxes
On Tuesday, Sibley announced a bill aimed at eliminating almost $100 million in taxes consumers pay on telephone use fees.
According to Public Utility Commission and Comptroller's office figures prepared by the Senate Business and Commerce Committee that Sibley chairs, telephone users in Texas paid $96.6 million in local and state sales taxes on federal, state and local fees last year.
"It is unfair to require consumers to pay what is essentially a tax on a tax," Sibley said. "While eliminating these sales tax payments will cut revenue to both the State of Texas and to municipalities, I don't believe we can justify this double-taxing of the public."
Sibley's proposal, SB 547, would eliminate sales taxes on five fees: the Federal Universal Service Charge, the Texas Universal Service Charge, the Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund (TIF) Assessment, Public Utility Gross Receipts Tax and Telecom Municipal Franchise Fees.
Ratliff Addresses Budget Matters
Following Thursday's session Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff spoke to reporters about the Texas budget for the 2001-2003 biennium, which is being worked out by the Senate Finance Committee chaired by Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis.
"It's a little early to start fretting about it yet," Ratliff said. "We've still got a lot of number crunching and budget scrubbing to do before we get too excited."
Ratliff chaired the Finance Committee from 1997 until he was elected by the Senate in December to succeed Rick Perry as Lieutenant Governor.
Busy Committees Address a Variety of Issues
Several committees met during the week, including the Business and Commerce Committee; the Finance Committee, which heard testimony on higher education matters; the Natural Resources Committee, which heard testimony on air quality and water issues; and the Nominations committee, which is considering nominations by Gov. Rick Perry to several state agencies and boards.
The Jurisprudence Committee considered SB 3, dealing with the preservation of DNA evidence and the post-conviction DNA testing.
Senators Introduce Higher Education Bills
On Wednesday, Bivins announced the introduction of SB 573, calling for a marketing campaign to increase higher education enrollment. Moncrief announced SB 572, proposing to boost enrollment in Texas nursing schools, and West announced SB 576, dealing with increasing enrollment at the University of North Texas' South Dallas campus.
Other Senate News
It was a busy week for introductions and recognitions, with a number of groups and organizations visiting the Senate. On Wednesday, following Ogden's recognition of members of the Sheriff's Association of Texas in the gallery, Lake Jackson Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown made the observation that it was the first time that sheriffs had surrounded the Senate since the Killer Bees.
The Killer Bees were a group of 12 senators who in the 1979 session were the object of a statewide manhunt. They hid out in an Austin garage apartment to keep the Senate from reaching a quorum and debating a controversial bill that would have created a special presidential primary designed to favor a particular candidate.
Corpus Christi Sen. Carlos F. Truan, the last Killer Bee still serving in the Texas Senate, responded, "It would have taken the sheriffs, because neither the DPS (Department of Public Safety) nor the Texas Rangers could find them."
As of Thursday, 591 bills have been introduced in the Senate. There now 109 days left in the 77th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature.
The Senate stands adjourned until 1 p.m. Monday, February 12.